How to get the best out of 3 centre-backs

The use of three centre backs has been a controversial move used by many managers in football leading their virtual counterparts to recreate their tactics on Football Manager. When looking at a teamsheet which has an extra defensive player it reads as a preventive choice however, if deployed right, it adds more attacking intent, allowing other players to have a higher attacking input. 


Here are just a few ways to get the best out of playing three central defenders.



Like every great centre back pairing the defenders must complement each other. At least one of the defenders must be adept in distributing the ball and at least one must be dominant in the air. A Ball-Playing Defender in a defensive trio a vital part in a team’s build up play as most of his team will be in more advanced positions, e.g. the wingbacks and attacking midfielders. A centre back with high Passing, Composure, Technique and Vision will allow your team to play out from defence with ease.


One tactic I like to set is telling the goalkeeper to distribute the ball specifically to the Ball-Playing Defender this reduces the risk of the defenders giving away the ball cheaply in dangerous areas. Having the Ball-Playing Defender is the middle of the three opens more passing channels for the player, increasing the chance of your team keeping hold of the ball.

My Favourite Examples are Sergi Gomez from Celta Vigo, Hector Moreno from PSV and Virgil Van Dijk from Southampton. All three players have great passing stats for defenders and when starting a new save these three tend to be on my shortlist. Whilst Van Dijk is very expensive he worth every penny I found, providing consistent 7.5 plus ratings. 



Alongside the Ball-Playing Defender should be someone who dominates in the air, providing a presence in both boxes. This role must have high Jumping Reach, Heading, Strength and Bravery will offer both defensive and offensive prowess to your team. In the tight games where both teams are cancelling each other out, set pieces often prove to be the difference. At the end of the season goals scored or prevented by your dominant centre back could be the difference between taking the club to next tier and failing to meet objectives.

Niklas Sule from Hoffenheim, Domagoj Vida from Dinamo Zagreb and, again, Virgil Van Dijk of Southampton are ideal candidates for this role. At the start of the save you can buy Vida for around 10 million, the only down side of this player is his ability to pick up a lot yellow and red cards. Van Dijk again makes the list as he is adept to playing either role as his stats are so well rounded and is a must of any team looking to dominate their domestic league.


Every centre back has three specific roles within their playing style, Stopper, Defend and Cover. These control the defender’s positional play and how aggressive they are when closing the ball down. The way I decide which roles each defender takes on is based on the oppositions attack. If the opposing team lines up with a Target Man or someone who’s game relies on their aerial ability I tend to put my best defender in the air in the middle of the three and set his role to Stopper. This means the defender will push ahead of the defensive line and challenge the Target Man, typically Target Men lack pace therefore there is reduced risk of them turning and running past your defence.

However, when the opposition line up with a quick forward who is a good dribbler switching the central defender to Cover is the best suited tactic to combat your opponents. The defender will sit a little deeper than the other centre backs allowing him to be in a better position to sweep up any balls put through or over the defence. The other counter to a fast striker is using the offside trap however this is a very risky tactic as to be effective all three centre backs must be on the same wavelength. I tend to void away from using the offside trap as I like to have control over what my players do and where they are positioned.




Football Manager allows the opportunity to retrain players in different positions and it is wise that you explore this avenue. When joining a team and wanting to play 3 at the back you may not have the strength in depth to field 3 centre backs every game. By retraining players as central defenders it increases the flexibility of your squad, creating new options and possibly saving you having to go out and spend in the transfer window. 

The best example of this is retraining full-backs as centre-backs as they have the necessary defensive attributes and added speed to play as one of the outside centre backs. Antonio Conte’s use of Cesar Azpilicueta as the right sided centre back is a good example of a manager utilising a full backs defensive capability and speed in a different position. 

Roma’s Danielle de Rossi is someone who has produced great performances as a central Ball-Playing Defender in my Roma save, surrounding him with fast centre backs either side making up for his declining pace. His tackling and passing stats make him a vital asset when recycling possession and building up from the back. I also found that retraining Matteo Darmain as a right sided centre back was a good move as he was not good enough to be playing at wingback and I needed cover in defence.



Playing three central defenders not only adds extra defensive stability it also allows attackers creative freedom. When deployed correctly and the players have been given time to learn the tactics it creates a fluid, yet stable shape to a team. I found in my saves that a Control mentality works best with 3 defenders as it means the team has the majority of possession reducing the amount of pressure the 3 defenders are under and allowing them to bring the ball out of defence. The central midfielders should drop deep every now and again and collect the ball from the defenders and then pass it on to the other centre back creating a triangle around the onrushing striker or strikers. 

The use of a defensive trio should be one of your three main tactics as it can often act as a very good plan B when perhaps results aren’t going your way or players are getting restless about their playing time.


This guide has been written by Tom



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